The Wisdom of My Father

February 1, 2011


For only the third time, I am watching a Presidential election without my father Marvin Braiterman (1925-2004).  We bonded over politics, even more than baseball, though we didn’t always agree.  He respected me for disagreeing.

Today’s Republican candidates, Congressional representatives, and NH legislators would make my father sick, but he would not give up on the system.  He would get to work on changing it.  He always tried to be what he called “an active participant in history.”

I’m remembering him now, and reading a book about other people’s memories of their fathers.

Wisdom of Our Fathers is the late Tim Russert’s sequel  to his brilliant memoir of his own father, Big Russ. Wisdom is a few of the tens of thousands of letters and e-mails Russert received from people who read the first book and felt moved to share an anecdote about their own fathers.

The second book has me thinking about how I would sum up my relationship with my father in an anecdote.  He was a very complex man, and Russert, who was a more gifted writer than I am, needed a whole book to sum up his father.

Like Big Russ, Marvin Braiterman grew up in the Depression and served in World War II.  Like most veterans of what my father called “the last good war,” he rarely talked about it, but he was more open than Big Russ because, as he always said, “I had an easy war.”  He spent most of it in England predicting weather for the Army Air Corps.

Of course, there were the six battle stars he earned flying weather reconnaissance missions over the North Sea and mainland of Europe.  He only mentioned those once, in anger, to a driver with VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) vanity license plates, who called my father a lousy (obscenity) driver in front of his children.

“I’ve got six battle stars on my war record,” he shouted back at the man.  Then, he turned to me and said, “He probably spent the war sweeping out officers’ clubs. The real war heroes didn’t come home, or don’t make a big show of being veterans.”

The one World War II experience he often talked about was when he volunteered to serve as an interpreter when the British liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  “Bodies stacked like cord wood.  The smell of death and rotting flesh permeated the whole city,” he said.  “The townspeople had to know what it was.”

He spent the ’60′s as a civil rights lawyer in Maryland and Mississippi, where he was kidnapped and held at gunpoint by Ku Klux Klansmen. As Washington representative for his religious denomination, he worked on civil rights, economic justice, and against the Vietnam War – always an active participant in history.  Even in quiet New Hampshire, he served on the state parole board, was a town selectman, and helped lead the opposition to a nuclear waste dump under Henniker and Hillsboro.

My father was a public person, but a very private man, a brilliant thinker and public speaker, always an active participant in history.

Personally, he was shy, and didn’t like many people, except his wife and children, whom he adored unconditionally, and a few intimate friends.  He was a bullet-headed intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge of American history and Constitutional law – which he taught at New England College in Henniker, NH.  We spent long hours alone, talking about that stuff, which I was also interested in.

I often find that, when I talk about my father to people who don’t know him, they get the idea that he was a distant, demanding, authoritarian father.  He was not.  He gave his wife and children unconditional love, and all of us knew it.  He often had strong opinions about what decisions we should make, but always had good reasons, which he explained to us.  He did not withdraw his love if, after thinking about what he said, we decided to choose something else.

He thought I was the world’s best newspaperman, and always told me so.  He cried when I lost my first crummy job on a crummy weekly newspaper.  He let me live at home, paid my medical expenses, and supported me rent-free for three years, while I was recovering from a catastrophic illness.   When my retroactive Social Security payment (37 months) finally came through, I showed my appreciation by giving him enough money for a new Toyota.

After that, when I wrote a financial aid application that said I lived at home for three years, he said, “Don’t say that.  You paid rent!”  That legal advice got me a $20,000 student loan without even telling a lie.  He never asked me for money, and I never even considered not paying him.  He believed it was his responsibility to help me because he could, and I felt a responsibility to repay him when I could.  No one said a word about money.

But like Russert says in his book, the most important thing a father can give his children is his time.  Sure enough, I most remember those long, late-night conversations about politics, law, history, the news, baseball (he saw DiMaggio, Lefty Grove, and Jimmy Foxx; we saw Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra), and anything else I wanted to talk about.   He was never touchy-feely, and rarely talked about feelings, but I always knew he was sharing himself, and expressing his love by listening to me, respecting me, teaching me, and spending time with me.

1 Comment for this entry

  • Ken Braiterman says:

    A story in the March 7, 2011, edition of the Providence Journal reminded me of another example of my dad being an active participant in history:

    “A plea deal intended to spare a murdered child’s family the horrific details of his death has come back to haunt residents of a historic town in Rhode Island,” The Journal said. “The killer, an accused cannibal who was a teenager when the crime was committed more than 30 years ago, will be free before the end of the year, according to police.”

    In 1982, when my dad was on the NH Parole Board, a convicted murderer named William Coolidge came up for parole. Coolidge had kidnapped, raped, and murdered a little girl, the most heinous crime in NH history up to that time.

    His first conviction on first degree murder was overturned by the US Supreme Court because of an illegal search. Coolidge was given a new trial. Rather than re-try the case, the state attorney general allowed Coolidge to plead guilty to 2nd degree murder, with a maximum sentence of 25 years.

    A few years before completing him maximum sentence, the parole board granted him a parole that would keep him out of NH. If he “maxed out,” he would walk out of NH State Prison in Concord completely, unconditionally free. The parole required him to serve some time in the Georgia state prison before being released on supervised parole down there.

    The case got national media attention. My dad wrote an 8-page opinion explaining the board’s action. He and the board were targets of Page One editorials in the state’s largest newspaper for several months.

    The Manchester “Union-Leader,” and its publisher William Loeb, were famous all over the country for Loeb’s Page One right wing editorials that dripped blood.

    He took control over who got Republican nominations in an era when the GOP nomination practically guaranteed election. He wrested control of the state Republican Party from its moderate leaders. Loeb called the moderates “the green underwear crowd” because many of them were Dartmouth alumni.

    Another series of Page One editorials in 1972, killed U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie’s chance for the Democratic presidential nomination, when he was the party’s front-frunner.

    A Loeb edtiorial prompted Muskie to go to the Union-Leader building with a bull horn, a crowd, and the national media to denounce Loeb’s attacks on him over a letter on Muskie’s stationery that showed him using the ethnic slur “Canuck” about his many French Canadian constituents in Maine. Muskie broke down crying in the middle of a sentence, ending his presidential hopes, clearing the way for the nomination of George McGovern.

    (Watergate investigations by Washhington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein later disclosed that the letter was a fake, written by an operative in the Nixon White House, part of an organized effort to eliminate Muskie, their strongest potential opponent, and nominate McGovern, their weakest rival.)

    No newspaper today can ever be that powerful, because newspapers are no longer most people’s primary source of news.

    But the paper’s Statehouse reporter, Donn Tibbetts, for decades a model of journalistic professionalism, covered the Coolidge story straight on the news pages, and gave the board good coverage. He told me later that my dad’s written opinion gave him “something true that we could use.”

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